A charter flight left the U.S. carrying 8 Iraqis. A community wonders who will be next

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By Abigail Hauslohner
A man passes Iraqi storefronts in Sterling Heights, Mich., in March. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
STERLING HEIGHTS, MICH. — The charter flight left on a Wednesday with eight Iraqis on board. By the following evening, the large Iraqi immigrant community in this Detroit suburb was roiled with rumors about why, with news of the departure morphing as phone calls spun into horror. Some people were talking again about whether they should go into hiding.

The flight on April 19, it turns out, was the result of a Trump administration policy that could lead to the deportation of thousands of Iraqis back to a war-torn country many haven’t seen in decades. In Detroit’s large Iraqi community, the policy shift has sown panic and confusion. In the suburb of Sterling Heights, home to tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics who are members of Iraq’s ancient Christian minority, there also is a deep sense of irony.

When President Trump rolled out his entry ban ­initially targeting seven ­majority-Muslim countries in January, many here applauded, even though Iraq was on the list, because Trump had vowed special protections for Christians. The Chaldeans voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and many saw him as a president who would finally protect the Middle East’s Christians from persecution, prioritize the resettlement of Christian refugees in the United States, and get tough on the Islamic State, which has massacred Shiites as well as Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. government has called the Islamic State campaign of slaughter a genocide, and Chal­deans worry that a return to Iraq will lead to kidnappings and murders.

[Kerry declares Islamic State has committed genocide]

When Trump in February removed Iraq from the revised version of his ban — now on hold because of court challenges — it was the result of a quiet deal between the two countries. Among promises to add new, unspecified security measures, Iraq, which had for years failed to cooperate with U.S. deportation efforts, also would start accepting people without Iraqi travel documents. The move put approximately 4,400 undocumented Iraqis who have deportation orders at risk of being put on flights out of the country.

When Trump in February removed Iraq from the revised version of his ban — now on hold because of court challenges — it was the result of a quiet deal between the two countries. Among promises to add new, unspecified security measures, Iraq, which had for years failed to cooperate with U.S. deportation efforts, also would start accepting people without Iraqi travel documents. The move put approximately 4,400 undocumented Iraqis who have deportation orders at risk of being put on flights out of the country.

Any non-citizen, including legal residents, who commits an “aggravated felony” under U.S. immigration law — a term that includes serious crimes as well as many nonviolent offenses and misdemeanors — is deportable. The Iraqis who face deportation do not have visas to live in the United States, many of them having lost their green cards because they were convicted of crimes. They fall into a cohort of people President Trump has targeted for removal from the country, regardless of their nationality.

Many of the Chaldeans have been living in the United States for years since first receiving a deportation order.

“There are a lot of Chaldeans in the U.S. who voted for Trump because they wanted him to help the Christians,” said Eman H. Jajonie-Daman, a Chaldean immigration lawyer and local magistrate judge who is representing several people with deportation orders. “Now they’re telling me, ‘The Trump administration has betrayed us.’ How could you admit Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria, and yet you want to send [some of] them back to die?”

But many Americans support the idea that non-citizens who commit serious crimes should be deported, said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates strict immigration control.

“For the most part, criminal aliens need to be deported,” ­Camarota said, noting that people who fear danger at home can appeal to a U.S. judge. “There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iraq today, and some of them do face dangers, but that’s not a reason for us to let criminal aliens stay in the United States. .?.?. I think most Americans say the safety of the American people has to come first, and that is the reason we deport criminal aliens.”

‘A huge panic’

At the Chaldean Community Foundation, which provides ­social services to the local immigrant population, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing, the scope of the crisis seeming to expand with each call.

“It’s a very close-knit community, so I’m getting calls from people I haven’t heard from in 20 years,” said Martin Manna, the foundation’s president, referring to those who have been living for years with outstanding deportation orders. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you’re in the same situation?’ ”

When Manna called a meeting on the issue this month, 70 people showed up.

“There were mothers and daughters crying. There were those who don’t know anything about the law and were blaming the government,” said a 55-year-old businessman who has lived with a deportation order for seven years after serving a 22-year prison sentence for dealing drugs. He, like many others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from immigration authorities. “?‘What do we do with our businesses? Do we sleep at home?’?” he said people asked. “Just a huge panic.”

The existance of the new policy might not have gotten out but for one man’s attorney, who, seeking to halt his client’s deportation, filed a motion in court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Zak Toomey laid out the new policy and its relationship to Trump’s entry ban in the government’s March 21 response to that filing. “Iraq was specifically removed from the list of countries affected by the Executive Order based on its agreement to facilitate repatriation of Iraqi nationals subject to removal orders,” he wrote. “Iraq has agreed to accept Iraqi nationals removed from the United States using a less stringent identity-verification process and without travel documents.”

A representative of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed a “March 12, 2017 agreement with the government of Iraq regarding removals” as well as the April 19 charter flight that took eight Iraqis to Baghdad. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

By Manna’s count, as many as 350 Chaldeans in the Detroit metro area are at immediate risk of deportation.

Nearly all of them have similar stories: Their families immigrated legally, often fleeing Saddam Hussein’s brutality in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. They settled in Detroit’s working-class, Seven Mile neighborhood, a place that grew increasingly crime-ridden. And at some point, they got into trouble.

For one 46-year-old father of three, it was a drug conviction when he was a teenager that landed him in prison for 15 years, stripped him of his green card and earned him a deportation order — a fact he never mentions when he’s doing advertising for local supermarkets or coaching his son’s Little League team. For the 48-year-old owner of an auto body business, it also was drugs and a 17-year stint in prison, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in finance management; he was released with an order of deportation to Iraq, a country he hadn’t seen since he was 4. For a 30-year-old construction worker and father of four small children, it was a nine-month sentence for drugs and assault. And for a 43-year-old in the process of purchasing a trucking company, throwing a bottle at a wall after getting turned away from a nightclub landed him in prison for two years on assault charges — time he served two decades ago.

But there have long been serious obstacles to deportation. Judges often agreed that Iraq was too dangerous and granted some people permanent stays on their deportation orders under the U.N. Convention against Torture. Hussein brutally executed political dissidents, persecution that led the United States to offer asylum in 1996 to 6,600 Iraqis. There was the 1991 Persian Gulf War and then the 2003 U.S. invasion that gave way to years of sectarian bloodshed, the rise of an Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State. The cycle of conflict has yielded millions of asylum seekers worldwide.

“Everyone was convinced that Iraq will never be safe again, that you never have to worry about being deported,” the construction worker said.

Iraq’s policy of refusing to admit deportees had frustrated U.S. immigration officials, who for years counted Iraq as one of more than 20 “recalcitrant” countries that did not cooperate with deportations. Baghdad’s new agreement to take deportees without documents has presented a workaround, but the provision is also fueling some of the fear.

It has been extremely difficult to obtain an Iraqi passport if you do not already have one that has not expired. Many of the Chaldeans who arrived here as children have no Iraqi identity documents, and some do not have birth certificates.

“Just to move from one place to another in Iraq, you have to have an ID card. Employment, food, housing, anything — you have to have Iraqi documents,” lawyer Jajonie-Daman said. “How are these people going to go there without anything to prove they’re Iraqi?”

‘I have nobody in Iraq’

Chaldeans are not the only Iraqis in the United States who fear deportation; some Iraqi Muslims living here likewise cannot imagine being forced to leave.

“I’m honestly terrified of these ICE officers. I think about suicide all the time,” said Walleed Albiraihi, 30, a Shiite Muslim whose family fled Iraq when he was 2 and whose deportation order stems from a marijuana-possession case at age 17. “You’re sending me to another country. .?.?. I don’t speak like them, I don’t dress like them. I have nobody in Iraq.”

Mohamed Elsharnoby, an immigration lawyer in Dearborn, Mich., said he has received dozens of phone calls from Iraqi Sunni Muslims with deportation orders “because the Sunnis are being persecuted by the popular militias in Iraq.”

But Chaldeans, members of a minority group that has fled Iraq en masse since 2003, say they face the most imminent danger. In recent weeks, they have started petitions, phoned lawmakers and flocked to lawyers in a desperate effort to forestall the impact of the new policy.

“In the last two weeks, I’ve created a trust. I gave my sister power of attorney,” said the owner of the auto body shop who, like several others, also hired an attorney to seek a permanent stay on his deportation under the Convention against Torture.

ICE said it was able to deport 48 Iraqi nationals last year despite the obstacles. But none appear to have come from Detroit’s Chaldean community, and all probably were voluntary deportations or specially negotiated cases, according to Iraqi diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with Iraqi Embassy protocol.

It is the memory — or legendary horror — of an earlier deportation flight that is the main point of reference for Sterling Heights’ latest bout of fear. In 2010, the Obama administration deported to Baghdad 52 people who did not have documents, Jajonie-Daman said.

No one knows why it happened. Jajonie-Daman suspects that it was an arrangement that had something to do with the then-pending U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. But many in the community remember the backlash.

“We went absolutely nuts,” she said. Lawyers filed motions to reopen scores of likely deportees’ criminal cases, and rumors spread about a pair of Christian brothers on the Fflight who were subsequently kidnapped. Local Chaldean leaders in Detroit sounded the accusation that Obama was deporting Christians back to Iraq to die.

And for years, there were no more such flights. Until April 19. Those who were sent back to Baghdad included people convicted of robbery, assault, smuggling and drug offenses, according to ICE.

Rumors that it was coming had been circulating for weeks, but when it finally happened, the Chaldeans here got wind of it only because a Chaldean on the flight managed to call his mother when he arrived in Baghdad.

ICE has not said how many additional flights are planned or how many people will be deported, nor will it comment on timing, for security reasons, a representative said. In its March court filing, the government alluded to the first flight and said “ICE is in the process of scheduling the second group.”